‘Tis the season (for seasonal affective disorder, that is)

We Clevelanders can probably relate to some of the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that strikes most commonly during the winter months.  But for some, the so-called “winter blues” represent more than a passing bad mood that roughly corresponds to the number of days that have elapsed with no sign of the sun.  Seasonal affective disorder is a diagnosable and largely treatable form of clinical depression.  And, as with other mental impairments, employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate those who suffer from it under the ADA.  

This was the issue in the recent case of Ekstrand v. Sch. Dist. of Somerset.  Ms. Ekstrand, a first grade teacher, suffered from seasonal affective disorder and provided corroborating medical documentation from her mental health provider.  She requested that her room — which had no windows — be changed so she could be exposed to natural light through  out the workday.  While the school did not accommodate this request, it did make some changes to improve the lighting and air ventilation in Ms. Ekstrand’s room.  Nonetheless, Ms. Ekstrand’s symptoms did not recede and she eventually went on medical leave and ending up finding work elsewhere.

While the district court granted summary judgment to the school district on Ms. Ekstrand’s ADA failure to accommodate claim, the Seventh Circuit reversed.  By failing to provide the requested for accommodation — which was shown to have been possible and virtually costless — the district violated the ADA (or at least that question should be put to a jury).  The “undue burden” standard that excuses an employer from providing a particular accommodation is a high one, and one the school district did not come close to establishing, according to the court.

Employers should also bear in mind that under the recent ADA amendments, the issue courts will be focusing on is that of accommodations, as opposed to whether the plaintiff was covered by the ADA in the first instance.  (See Ohio Employer’s Law Blog dated 9.22.09)  So the next time an employee requests an accommodation, take the interactive process seriously, consider all options, and document your decision-making process.  And, of equal importance, make sure all managers understand their obligations under the ADA.